State lawmakers have struck a deal to try to save Washington’s eight charter schools, six months after the state’s highest court declared the publicly funded, privately run schools unconstitutional.
The state House approved a measure Wednesday that would change how charter schools are funded. Supporters said it would resolve issues that caused the state Supreme Court to strike down the state’s charter school law in September.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said the bill was necessary to ensure charter schools have a future in the state.
“If we don’t make the charter school fix, those schools close down,” said Litzow, who sponsored Senate Bill 6194.
I just think every student in the state ought to have an education system that works for them. And for some, that will be charter schools.
Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, on agreement for charter school fix
An amended version of Litzow’s charter school bill cleared the House on a 58-39 vote Wednesday, one day before the Legislature is scheduled to conclude its 60-day session.
“I just think every student in the state ought to have an education system that works for them. And for some, that will be charter schools,” said state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, who helped negotiate a deal on the bill.
Washington voters approved charter schools by passing Initiative 1240 in 2012. About 1,100 students now attend Washington’s eight charter schools, three of which opened in Tacoma in August.
Yet shortly after that, a majority of state Supreme Court justices said charter schools don’t qualify as common schools under state law and therefore can’t be funded the same way as traditional public schools.
Key to the court’s decision was that charter schools aren’t run by publicly elected boards, but instead by boards that are appointed.
If we don’t make the charter school-fix, those schools close down.
State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who sponsored bill aiming to keep charter schools open
To try to address the court ruling, the measure that cleared the House on Wednesday would no longer fund charter schools using the state general fund, which pays for traditional public schools, but instead from a separate account that includes state lottery revenues.
The state Senate estimated the cost of continuing the schools at $6.6 million.
The bill passed out of the Republican-controlled state Senate last month, but subsequently stalled in the House Education Committee.
Democratic House leaders revived the legislation this week, making a few tweaks but largely keeping the structure of the original Senate bill.
The amended proposal must return to the Senate for final approval, but Litzow, who chairs the Senate education committee, said that shouldn’t pose a problem.
Still, some lawmakers Wednesday questioned whether the measure would solve all the potential problems with charter schools.
Most Democratic lawmakers voted against the charter school bill, with some saying it would prompt another court challenge. The final vote on the bill split House Democrats, with 10 supporting it and 39 voting against it.
If you don’t address the governance issue, then there isn’t a way to fund it constitutionally.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, on other constitutional problems she sees with charter schools
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she doesn’t think a fix will hold up in court unless charter schools are placed under the control of publicly elected school boards. The bill the House approved Wednesday wouldn’t make that change.
“If you don’t address the governance issue, then there isn’t a way to fund it constitutionally,” said Jinkins, who said the court made that “pretty evident” in its decision.
Other Democrats criticized the plan for helping 1,100 charter school students, but not addressing funding problems that plague the state’s traditional public schools, which serve 1 million students statewide.
In the ongoing McCleary case, the state is in contempt of court due to the Legislature’s lack of progress on public school funding.
State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said the Legislature can work to help both groups of students, whether they attend charters or traditional public schools.
“I think that is an absolutely false choice,” Stokesbary said, adding the Legislature should “provide an option for (students for) whom traditional public schools aren’t working.”
No House Republicans voted against the charter school measure Wednesday.
The measure will also permit new charter schools to open in Washington, capping the total number of schools at 40 during the next five years.
Charter school supporters say in just six months, students at the schools have shown significant gains in math and reading.
Leading up to the House vote, charter school supporters gathered at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to keep the schools open. Several supporters said that in only six months, the state’s charter schools have already helped students significantly improve their math and reading skills.
“They’re doubling the national average in terms of gains in English, and they’re tripling it in math,” said Jen Wickens, the chief regional officer for Summit Public Schools, which operates the Summit Olympus charter school for ninth-graders in Tacoma.
Jessica Garcia, who has a daughter enrolled at Destiny Middle School in Tacoma, said the charter school’s individualized education plans have helped ensure her daughter remains challenged.
Before, as a fifth grader at a non-charter school, Garcia’s daughter “spent half the year being a tutor in the classroom, instead of advancing her own education,” the Tacoma resident said.
Tatiana Villegas, a 14-year-old who attends the Summit Sierra charter school in Seattle, said she would hate to return to a larger, more traditional school if her school was forced to shut down.
“I just wouldn’t have the same success,” she said.